Matthew Murphy: Theatre & Dance Photographer
Hey there VPM-fans! This post is part of a new series we’re doing, highlighting some creatives folks (photographers, designers, videographers, etc.) for whom theatre is more than just a paycheck, but a muse. Think you (or a friend) might be a good fit? Let us know via email. Without further ado…
If you regularly follow theatre and dance news, chances are you’ve seen one of Matthew Murphy‘s photographs. The New York Times, Broadway.com, and many others regularly publish Matthew’s work, as he has quickly become one of New York City’s top theatre and dance photographers. He’s also a go-to headshot photographer for dozens of young actors and singers, and a key part of the creative team behind the upcoming musical 35mm.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t focus his lens on performers by chance. He started on stage himself, as a dancer. His first performance, in a local Montana production of The Nutcracker, was a milestone. “I played Fritz opposite my sister’s Clara, and even appeared on the cover of the Entertainer, our local Entertainment newspaper,” he told us. “My first show and my first photo shoot in one year; I was hooked.” He eventually made his way to New York City, becoming a dancer with American Ballet Theater. After dancing with ABT for five years, Matthew was struck with Chronic Epstein Barr Virus, effectively halting his dance career.
Six months into the illness, chronic boredom compelled Matthew to sign onto Amazon and order a Canon 30D. “To this day I can’t explain what prompted me to order a DSLR, but it is, to my estimation, what saved me from my illness. I’d spend several hours each day escaping the confines of my apartment to wander the streets of the Village and shoot.”
His newfound interest was fueled by his love of dance, as he occasionally shot ABT rehearsals. It provided a quick tutorial in the technical aspects of photography: “Shooting dance, which requires such precision, was an incredible way to learn the ins and outs of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and, most importantly, creative power.” Performance photography was “an invaluable way to learn because you have to be quick with your fingers [to] make adjustments and compose a shot within a split second.”
Matthew’s work is hardly limited to the marley though; he’s also actively engaged in musical theatre as one of the creative forces behind 35mm, a new musical inspired by his images. “35mm is collaboration between myself and composer Ryan Scott Oliver. It is an evening-length work that merges the worlds of musical theater and photography.”
“35mm began when Ryan took an image of mine, I believe the first was the image for MAKE ME HAPPY, and decided to write a song inspired by the image, which is a sort of goofy shot of two people standing with Happy Face balloons covering their heads.” That creative spark (Matthew described it as ”thrilling, to say the least”) lead to more songs, and ultimately a realization: ”we could create something special by presenting the images and the songs together in one evening.” 35mm was born.
As the show developed over two public stagings and a private reading, the conceptual process (photograph begets song) was occasionally reversed to make sure song and image worked in perfect harmony. “In those instances, I had to work hard to get out of my own way,” Matthew explained. “I had to dig a bit deeper in my own brain to find a way to connect the image to the song that didn’t feel too obvious to the viewer, while also not confusingly disconnected.”
The collaboration has been especially productive, which may be part of 35mm‘s success. “[Ryan and I have] been able to really speak openly about thoughts, questions and concerns with each other’s contributions and, even though it may at first be met with resistance, we are always able to talk through it and come to a stronger point with the work.”
Each of Matthew’s projects requires a specific approach. “For headshot photography, my number one goal is to get an honest portrait of my subject that presents them not only in their most beautiful light, but also while tapping into their most marketable energy.” It’s a delicate task that requires mutual trust with his subject. “Photography is all about trust and the best shots, whether headshots or creative work, require that the the subject gives over their energy to the camera when needed, [allowing] me to shape the scene for maximum effect.”
Occasionally his process is very involved, as it is for his Broadway.com series Gotta Dance! ”I do a substantial amount of pre-production where I research the dancers as well as visual styles and clothing/makeup inspirations for each shoot. Following that I spend several days communicating with my team of stylists, producers, and makeup artists to ensure that we are as prepared as possible before arriving on set.”
No matter what he’s shooting, he is constantly using his dance background. He describes it as “indispensable,” noting that “it gives me a substantial amount of insight into dance technique and a way of ‘correcting’ my portrait subjects so that we achieve the proper moment.” It’s also a key influence on how he composes a shot. “More than anything though I think my time as a dancer helps with my spatial awareness and eagerness to explore new angles and creative lines within my images.”
Matthew is also an enthusiastic collaborator. “Some of my favorite shots I’ve taken were the result of the subject and myself working together to achieve something more unexpected and unusual.” It gives him a chance to change roles: “[I] like to alternate between being a fly on the wall capturing the moment and being a more active director.”
Since his original 30D, Matthew has expanded his kit significantly:
I shoot 90% of my work on a Canon 5D Mark ii with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. I also have a Canon 5D, a Canon 30D, and a Holga for camera bodies and then for lenses I have a 50mm f 1.2, a 24-70 f/2.8 and a Lens Baby Composer. For lighting I use a lot of Canon 580EXii Speedlights triggered by Pocket Wizards and then Elinchrom Strobes for more heavy duty studio work. And a whole bunch of light modifiers.
Matthew’s post production workflow is based in Adobe Lightroom (“That’s where I organize and catalog the files, then do things like color correction, batch editing, contrasting, etc.”) and he uses Adobe Photoshop for further tweaking.
He’s keen to point out that a lot of the work is done in the camera too. “My biggest tip for photography in general is to ALWAYS shoot in Manual mode on your camera. It’s really the only way that you’ll begin to really understand the relationship between shutter speed, ISO, and Aperture.” But for Matthew, understanding the camera is only the start. It’s just as important to know when to take the picture: “One of the best pieces of advice I got at the beginning–and a piece of advice that I still struggle to adhere to–is to wait for the shot to happen. Don’t just shoot endless amounts and edit out in post production. Be patient and prepared.”
Matthew has a full workload, and it’s forced him to put some of his personal projects on hold. Still, he loves what he does. “I’m extremely fortunate to have diversity in my day-to-day shooting. One day it’s headshots. The next it’s a dancer portrait series. The next it’s promo shots for a band or a shoot for a magazine or newspaper; this is what keeps me sane and passionate about my work.”
He’s constantly thinking about his creative projects though. “I’m currently expanding upon my series, ‘Men Hugging,’ which is my reaction to the gay rights movement and focuses on the role of masculinity in our culture.” And he has more in the pipeline, including some projects involving dance portraiture. “But I’m gonna stay quite about those for a bit longer.”
We’re excited to see those projects reach fruition, and will be following him every step of the way.
35mm performs March 7 and 12 at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, NY. For more details, visit 35mmTheMusical.com.